Thief: The Dark Project (1999) Gold edition review

Rated: 4 / 5

This is a game I’ve been interested in trying for years now.  Back in the early 2000s, a few friends of mine tried to get me into it, but to no avail for a couple of reasons.

1.) Every time my mother or father had purchased a computer, it was never one capable of running modern games.  That was fixed when I personally bought the components to build my own computer, but that was a decade later.

2.) I was a fucking idiot who didn’t understand the appropriate way to play, nor did I fully appreciate the pacing and playstyle, or the intelligence.

Cut to about a month ago, and I see a Youtube video (yes, as much as I hate Youtube, there are too many good content creators using that platform to ditch it) which discusses the problems with AAA gaming today.  Long story short, the problem is style over substance, too much repetition, too much hand-holding, too few chances taken.  AAA games today are made more for profit than they are for longevity and creating fans who will continue to revisit such a game decades later.  Because think about it, of all the AAA games that have been released over the past, um, let’s say from the X-Box 360 and PS3 and Wii generation of consoles and onwards (roughly 2006 to the present), how many do you often revisit?  Why do you revisit them?  What is it that makes them appealing and stand out from all the other games of the same genre and playstyle?  What makes one Call of Duty game different from another?  What makes open-world games so unique and appealing?

Well, many of them suffered from similar problems that I was aware of subconsciously, but couldn’t put into words or fully comprehend.  Then watching the above video, and after playing the game, I am now aware and can comprehend why the status of many games today is totally fucked.  It’s the same thing that made The Witcher 3 tiresome for me after a duration of time (despite how much I wanted to love that game more than I do), the same thing that plagues The Elder Scroll V: Skyrim, and many first-person and third-person shooters.  Map markers, mission markers, waypoints.  Whether it’s on the main screen or on some mini-map at the corner of the game screen, they do the same fucking thing.  They distract the player.  They dumb down the player and the experience.  It makes the player focus more attention on the marker and moving from point A to point B completing one objective after the next and being guided while doing so rather than thinking for themselves.

The version for taffers.

But it’s not the hand-holding alone that makes it bad (well, ok, maybe it is, since it promotes laziness and practically letting the game play itself; more on that later).  In fact, it could be used as an optional hint/cheat for players who are lost in the game who don’t want to be challenged in that way (pussies).  Rather, it’s the hand-holding combined with the distraction.  Players more often focus on the waypoint rather than the world itself.  The environment, the buildings, the people, the conversations, the subtle indications that are sprinkled in various areas (assuming that much attention to detail was given).  Whenever I play Skyrim or Witcher 3, or any such game similar (hell, even Jak II and III is guilty of doing this, but it’s more justifiable in those games because the open-world environment is less interesting than the destination of the waypoint when you do start platforming and shooting), my attention is focused more on the dot/arrow/icon that indicates what direction to move in rather than anything else around me.

Playing Thief: The Dark Project (aka Thief: Gold, which I’ll refer to as just Thief from now on; and don’t you dare confuse it with the 2014 version, fanatics of the old franchise will sneak into your house and murder you in your sleep for that), it got me to see why it is those waypoints take away from the game.  Which seems contradictory if you think about it, adding in elements to a game actually taking away from the experience; sometimes less is more, even in videogames.  Without waypoints to guide me, I was forced to try remembering portions of the level, utilize the map to some extent, as well as the compass to determine where I am and where I should go.  You also may not even want to reference the map or the compass ever.  In this way your attention is held entirely on your immediate surroundings.  You are forced to memorize the level up to a point.  You are forced to look for your goal(s).  And there are details worthy of your eyes.  Not just the shadows to hide your presence, or the types of floors which are safe to walk/run quickly upon vs. those that make too much noise.  No, there’s also the subtle story elements.  Not just the books you come across, I’m talking about the items and materials strewn about around the map.  They give indications as to what the place is like, what the occupants of the place are like, how things are run, hints at some room being the optimal location for riches to loot; plus the occasional secret door to come across.  Not having a waypoint ultimately allows one to be more immersed in the game world itself.

This isn’t to say its not without its headaches.  One can get easily lost in a level once you get to mission 4 and onwards (out of 15 main missions).  It may take you longer than your patience allows to find some obscure item necessary to complete the level.  Hell, there were a few times I had to resort to looking up youtube videos and/or game guides on gamefaqs.com to figure out how to get myself unstuck (I probably could’ve figured out how to get through it if I put enough time into it; but when I started clocking in at 3 hours on one level, that starts to make me think about what else I could be doing with my time).  Many games from 1999 and earlier suffer from similar situations, even the first Doom game from 1993.  But while the frustration is there, it also accomplishes something else I hadn’t felt in a while.  A sense of accomplishment.  While I did utilize guides at some points, later on I forced myself not to for the sake of trying to complete it all on my own.  And at some points, I succeeded.  This sense of discovery and solving the puzzle, getting through the maze, is more invigorating than simply being guided from one point to another.  Plus it adds to the length of the game.  15 levels, where you’ll be spending anywhere from 1-5 hours on each level depending on how good you are at this sort of thing, or if you’re replaying it.  You won’t feel like the game is too short to say the least (hah).

Which brings me to another point.  The whole getting lost in a level and learning your way around the place.  It does something else.  It makes the level memorable.  It makes each level feel like its own stand-alone experience.  Where the enemies are placed, how they patrol, what enemy types there are, the look of the level, where the lights are and whether or not they can be extinguished, certain areas you can use the rope arrow at (if anywhere), learning the paths to take to sneak past enemies, or how you can knock them out one by one until you have free reign of the entire area.  On that latter point, I found it hilarious in the context of this one level where I had to infiltrate this opera house (to steal shit of course).  I could’ve tried doing the level without knocking anybody out and hiding their bodies somewhere.  I could’ve, but considering I’ve been knocking out pretty much everyone I came across in previous levels, why stop know?  So I ended up knocking out most of the security guards, all the ballerina dancers and opera singers, and all the upper class nobles who came to watch the play.  I couldn’t help but chuckle at this, considering the context.  It’s a great moment that the game doesn’t force onto you.  It’s something you can choose to do of your own accord, without even being told it’s an option.

And on that note, this is a game that’s a stealth-thriller.  You’re not meant to just go in and butcher everyone because the sword-play aspect of the game is intentionally fiddly, and just about everyone else can wield a sword better than you can.  If you try to fight a bunch of guards, you’ll most likely get killed.  In fact, on the highest level of difficulty, the Expert difficulty (which is the level of difficulty I recommend to all, it’s the way Thief was meant to be played), you’ll automatically lose a mission if you kill anyone (well, anyone who’s human anyway).  So you’ll be forced to play like a thief.  You’ll be forced to feel like a thief.  You will be encouraged to play in such a way as to stick to the shadows and avoid combat wherever possible.  However, the last 3-4 levels eventually do away with this.  You are eventually allowed to let loose on these monsters and undead that wander around.  You can still sneak, to be sure, but there are some places where combat becomes unavoidable in later levels.  In some cases, it becomes mandatory to kill off certain enemy types.  It does offer a change of pace, but its subjective as to whether or not it’s a welcome change.  Some like it, others don’t.  Personally, I was just ho-hum about it.

So yeah, there’s more than just regular humans in this game.  There are undead and supernatural beings in this, and they become relevant to the plot, and are foreshadowed in documents and discussions, should you choose to read/listen to them.  And the undead make an appearance as early as level 2, so they are established as existing within this world early on.  Despite that, the game sticks closer to stealth-thriller rather than stealth-horror, up until you reach this one level titled, “Return to the Cathedral.”  Once you get to that level, holy Jesus-aged-titty-fucking-Christ almighty.  That level is one of the scariest fucking things you’re ever going to experience.  The game suddenly turns into a survival-horror game in that level.  You will want to hide not just because you don’t have the means or the ability of wiping out these demons that show up early on, but also because they are scary as fuck.  You hide because you don’t want to encounter these things.  And if they spot you and chase you, God help you, even though it’s likely he won’t considering how often you’ve stolen religious artifacts and desecrated holy sites.

Outside of that, there’s this other level called The Sword, which many state is their favorite level in the entire game (it’s not my personal favorite, by I can see why it is for others).  It starts out like a normal mansion level, until you go deeper and deeper into the mansion where the level design gets bizarre and unnatural.  One would wonder how it’s possible for someone to construct a mansion like this.  There are documents you can find in the level that indicate how it could be done, but it doesn’t fully explain everything witnessed in the most logical sense.  But it makes more sense later on when you learn more about the owner of the mansion.

Like I said, each level has it’s own unique and memorable aspect.  It’s something that can be overlooked if one were left focusing on a minimap and/or waypoint.  But there’s also an aspect that, well, I won’t say is unique to this game, but isn’t utilized anywhere near enough as it should be.  Sound.  Listening to the footsteps of guards to get a general idea of where they are and how far away they are, if they’re coming closer or moving further away.  Using sound to determine if it’s safe to come out of hiding, or if you should stay hidden for a while longer.  This is a very crucial element of this game, something that makes it work as well as it does.  The only other stealth game I can think of which utilized something like this is Alien: Isolation.  Other than that, most of the time, games go for visual cues rather than audio cues.  I mean, look at how the Uncharted games evolved between Uncharted 3 and 4.  Uncharted 3, yeah, you could sneak around and knock some foes out before having to get in a shootout.  Sometimes you could clear out an entire area stealthily, though it’s optional to do it that way.  Uncharted 4, fairly similar, except it’s easier to sneak around and take people out silently.  It becomes easy because you can mark your targets, and always see their location even when they’re not in your line of sight (because you mark them with waypoints).  Games today prefer visual cues rather than audio cues, and it cheapens the experience.

All these elements make this game stand the test of time precisely because of how much it does with what little it provides, though it is most likely intentional that they left some things out, restricted what the character is able to do, precisely to make it more realistic.  Because realistically, people can’t mark targets and then always know their location just by marking them visually with eyesight, as opposed to listening for their footsteps.

Most modern AAA games sacrifice immersion for more bling, more waypoints, more handholding, etc.  Open-world games somehow tend to be the worst of this.  Sometimes they offer the ability to turn off waypoints, but then you run into another problem.  Some games aren’t designed well enough to work without the use of waypoints.  Which is another thing that allows games like Thief to stand the test of time.  Level design.  While they can be headache-inducing, they at least offer challenge and actual exploration (moving to an objective via following a waypoint/minimap is not exploring, that’s riding an escalator).

As for the specifics to that game, you play as a thief named Garret, who is trained by a secret organization known as The Keepers, learning the tricks of the trade when it comes to thieving, but decides to abandon the organization and go independent.  Then he has occasional run-ins with other thieves and the organization known as The Hammers.  His way of life isn’t easy, as he needs to steal constantly and attempt to avoid being double-crossed and cheated, just to pay the landlord, nevermind having suitable living conditions.  But as the game goes on, his skills become noticed by devious figures who want him involved in their schemes.  In the end, he goes on missions he doesn’t entirely want to go on, including those pitting him against the undead and some mages.  But the potential reward is worth the insane risk.  But then he begins to realize he has underestimated what he’s been getting involved with, how supernatural things he put off as superstition end up being real, and begins to suffer for it.  By the end of the game, he wants nothing to do with the Keepers, the Hammers, or anyone else that big.  Only for it to be indicated that he is still being used for some organization’s purpose, as he had been used during the second half of the game.  The narrative is subtle, but good.  There are some plot elements (and/or treasures) you may have overlooked on a first playthrough, which encourages a second playthrough.  While Razorfist (see video above) doesn’t care for this game as much as the others, I found it to be just fine.

The game comes highly recommended.  Rough around the edges, sure, as anything from 1999 is likely to be.  But it does more things right that should be taken for granted, but have been tossed away through the years.  One of those things includes being a game that doesn’t insult your intelligence and try to lead you like a sheep.

Mods

Oh, right, there’s 2 mods I can recommend for this game, one of which is mandatory.

TFix

An unnofficial patch the fixes some bugs, and makes the game more compatible for modern engines.  This is the mandatory mod.  It’s less of a mod and more of a fix, though you can’t use the next mod without this one.

Thief Gold HD Texture Mod

If you think the graphics look too dated (ie too 90s), then there’s this mod.  It’s not going to make it look like a modern graphics game so much as it makes it look 1 console generation better in terms of graphics.  Works for me.  The only things I found iffy were the gas cloud effects of the gas bomb.  They looked too good for this game.  They stood out too much compared to the other special effects.  I prefer the graphics to be consistent.  It’s more of a minor nitpick than anything else, as the pros far outweigh the cons.

PS: Now I’m eager to play the sequel, The Metal Age.

Blair Witch vs. The Blair Witch Project

Rating 1/5 (for Blair Witch 2016)
4/5 (for The Blair Witch Project 1999)

“I see why you like this video camera so much. It’s not quite reality. It’s totally like a filtered reality man. It’s like you can pretend everything is not quite the way it is.”

I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project. It’s a film that I find solid to this day. I did not enjoy this new one. Rather than go into too much detail about just that film itself, I’m just going to compare the two, and mention why it is exactly that the first one is superior in every way to the new film. I’ll be going by the points below, stating how the reboot/sequel utilized them, and then comparing it to the 1999 film.

“I don’t wanna go cheesy, I want to really avoid any cheese. I want to present this in as straightforward a way as possible. And I think the legend is unsettling enough.”


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1.) The camera movement
Jesus Christ. No one shoots footage like this! No one! By no one I mean amateurs who go around filming stuff unprofessionally. I’m not talking about the scenes where they’re running around like maniacs, I’m talking about the more quiet calm moments. They don’t do that zooming in and out randomly an various subjects, both animate and inanimate. Granted, in the first film, they tend to shoot some bits of footage a little too good without much shaking, even during the finale when they’re going about the cabin, but I’ll take that over what the hell they did in this film.

jumpscare
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2.) Sounds
Heavy footstep sounds, like they are straight out of the Slenderman game. I’m honestly not so sure the original film utilized footsteps to this extent. It sounds like a giant troll rumbling around the forest. A great big tremendous inhuman force. Not exactly as subtle as in the first film, which pretty much sums up everything about this reboot (I refuse to call it a sequel for reasons I will give below). Nothing is subtle about this film. Every opportunity it can, it does jump scares, and makes some loud bang sound whenever that happens, whether it’s an actual shriek from the witch or some other supernatural force (the first film kept the witch invisible from an audio standpoint), to the whole, “Whoah, hey, it’s just me, I just decided to sneak up behind you and scare the ever loving shit out of you rather than respond to you calling my name because that’s what rational people would do in a situation like this,” sort of jump scare. It’s stupid.

Now in the original film when it came to the intriguing sounds, they tended to be faint and distant. That added to the creepiness of the environment. And the film took its time making the dread grow with each passing night, from cracks in the distance, to the sounds of children that grew closer, to the sounds of one of their friends crying out in the distance. There was no “BOOM! Did I scare you?” moments. It did what any respectable horror film would do, it gets under your skin and stays there. As opposed to the jump scare sounds which go for immediate payoff and have no lingering effect or build up as a result. Unless a few seconds of buildup is good enough for you, but it shouldn’t be.


3.) Visuals
Ok, so neither film is supposed to look that great since they’re supposed to be shot by amateurs with average (at the time) film gear. In the original, it’s just typical VHS handheld devices with, like 240p quality, maybe 360 at best. In this one, it’s 360p minimum, 720 at best. And it’s all in color, as opposed to the first film where 1 camera was in color, the other was black and white. Not only that, but they use first-person gear by way of mini-cameras that hook onto the ear, normal cameras, and a drone that never really does anything useful in the film.

Unlike the first film, there’s some definite special effects going on in the reboot. Tents go flying in the air, seeds grow roots inside of a leg (which doesn’t seem to serve any purpose in the long-run), glimpses of the witch, people disappearing in rooms, and other such tricks. It all becomes like a horror maze at Knott’s Scary Farm, with the same short term jump scares.

In the original film, everything seemed played out naturally, at first anyway. They go into the woods, they see some rock mounds, then the creep factor goes up a notch when they see the infamous stick people hanging around a bunch of trees, like they’ve stumbled upon souls that are trapped in the forest. Then there’s the handprints on the walls in the house.

New film, I don’t recall there being rock mounds, but there were stick figures (put out there much more bluntly), tents flying, cuts bulging, a tree falling, figures running within the house and not being there when a character turned the corner, a more unnatural looking house from the inside (it looks nothing like the house in the original film by the way), crawling within a tunnel that just so happens to be there for seemingly no reason at all, being jerked off camera, pounding against a door and splinters flying, and other such stuff. Again, subtle creepiness vs. in your face scares.

4.) Pacing
The new film, I just couldn’t get into the pacing all that much. Up until the second night in the woods, events happened quickly, but they weren’t interesting. It starts with footage recovered, where one of the main protagonists is like, “Hey, that’s my sister!” which is bullshit because nothing in the original film looked anything like that footage, but I guess that get’s explained away in a nonsensical fashion later on, which I’ll get to. They quickly gather camera gear, other members, drink at a nightclub, go into the woods, try to go out of the woods but circumstances have them go back to their old campsite. After that, the film finally gets interesting with the stick figures showing up, new plot developments that gives the woods a more supernatural twist that the first film didn’t do at all, the jump scares increase exponentially, some voodoo doll shit happens, they try to sleep it off but can’t, they make it to the cabin in the woods where it turns into a haunted house flick where everything starts happening more frantically, and so on.

So, in keeping with the theme that’s been running so far, the reboot tries to get things done faster which removes the whole creeping dread element. The original, on the other hand, took its time setting things up before the shit hit the fan. They get food and supplies, talk to people around town to get a buildup for the legend of the blair witch and the local town tales, which sets up for things that will happen later, they go into the forest with one uneventful day and night, they discover a few things on the later day, weird stuff happens on the second night, and it progresses from their, slowly getting worse and worse over the course of several days and nights. The remake only took place over the course of 2 days and nights (well 3 nights if you count the supernatural element). Both films are close to the same length, and yet the pacing of the original made for a more investing film in my opinion because of the slow buildup and more natural character interaction. The reboot, I didn’t really know or give a shit about any of the characters. No character was given much background in either film, but the original at least allowed the characters to clearly show their personality traits to make them more defined, while the reboot forced them into stereotypes and common caricatures that go off a checklist of what to expect of roles in films like this. One could argue that this is because there are 6 main people in the reboot as opposed to 3 in the original, but consider the John Carpenter version of The Thing, which had more players involved than this film, and yet gave each of them enough time to let their personalities shine through and give them personality, without succumbing to 2-dimensional stereotypes. That film was longer, but maybe Blair Witch should’ve been too, even though I doubt the talent was there in the first place to make the characters interesting at all.


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5.) Lore Building
The first film built up quite a lot of lore, especially during the first 15 minutes. Burkittsville, Maryland, once known as Blair, Maryland, has legends of what happened at Coffin Rock, a location in the woods. Stories of how 7 children disappeared in the 1940s, and of how Mr. Pyer killed them in his home up in the mountain, throwing a kid in the corner so he wouldn’t look at him, because he couldn’t stand them looking at him, while he killed the others before finally killing that corner kid. Others said it was because the woods were haunted that the children were found dead in the forest, or disappeared. Stories of people coming across the Blair Witch, one claiming to have seen her and that she touched her arm, and was covered in black hair all over her body (a description that is ignored in the new film). Then there’s the tail of 5 men bound from their hands to each other’s ankles, gutted with their entrails hanging out, and writings carved into their backs and left to die upon the creek at Coffin Rock. Different stories from different people. But then things get mysterious and interesting when the 3 main characters find 7 stone mounds (7 missing children), hear sounds of children playing in the darkness, find 3 piles on a later day (1 for each of them), one goes missing after disturbing one of the 7 mounds, the stick people in the woods, the handprints in the house, and one of them standing in the corner during the final moments of the film.

The new film, I wouldn’t say it builds upon things so much as changes them and takes liberties with the story. No rock mounds, none of them get disturbed by anyone. No children. No buildup by the local townsfolk. There’s word on how a search party looked for the 3 from the first film, and only recovered the tapes, and found no house in the woods. Other than that, the stick figures appear again, only hanging directly over the party’s tents overnight, indicating that their souls are already trapped in the woods for some reason. And time becomes meaningless. Sometimes the sun never comes up even when it should. Other times days will pass for some, while only hours pass for others. There’s some pointless thing about a seed taking root and growing within one person somehow someway that doesn’t make a lot of sense even within the context of this film. We see glimpses of the blair witch, learn that she can break people’s wills and get them to do her bidding, and she will play sound tricks on you. But then we learn that standing in a corner and not looking at her protects you from her, because she will only take you if you see her. This completely goes against the reason for the corner standing in the first film. And lastly, there’s this thing on how the footage shown at the beginning of the film that led them to the house was their own footage that they shot during the finale of the movie all along. It’s stupid. Honestly, it just seems like a lot of bullshit to me that belongs in a different film that could build up it’s own lore. This film should’ve kept the title The Woods, and take any mention of The Blair Witch out of its title and out of the movie.

6.) Black guy dies first
That’s not a comparison to the first film, it just gives me an excuse to use this gif:

Other Stuff
Alternate endings to The Blair Witch Project:
#1
#2
#3
#4

There’s a good Scooby Doo parody of The Blair Witch Project (a couple different versions with an alternate ending) made in the same year this film got released, and it’s frikkin brilliant:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YeDbDZ3oAE
God I loved the 90s.

Oh, and lastly, there’s something else I can recommend over Blair Witch that really goes to show what sort of talent and potential is left in the found footage genre, and can really scare the hell out of you, even without audio at certain points. Marble Hornets. It’s basically a found footage series based upon Slender Man, a true contender for Blair Witch inspired mythology if I ever saw one. I found it truly unnerving, and a hell of a lot better than Blair Witch (2016). This is how you do found footage (along with the 1999 Blair Witch Project).


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Youtube link to Entry #0 (Introduction).